Beginning in 1830 and continuing well into the Reconstruction period, black Americans from northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and mid-western states, came together in national, state, and county Colored Conventions to debate and strategize the best means of achieving social justice, economic well-being and, ultimately, full legal citizenship. One of the primary topics for debate—primary both in the sense of being first and in the sense of importance—was over the nature of the conventions themselves: should they be restricted to colored people or not? I am interested in the ways in which this debate played itself out in the New York state and county conventions of the early 1840s, and how the debate morphed from one of strategy to a more philosophical meditation on definitions and meanings of citizenship.
In 1821, the New York state legislature took upon itself to deny black men the franchise by instituting a voting property qualification of $250. Denied a right they once had, New York’s black leaders came together to organize petitions drive throughout the state and in 1840 called for a state convention to be held in Albany, and the year after a New York county convention. The debates in these conventions initially had to do with strategy. Some leaders argued in favor of colored-only conventions, insisting that black New Yorkers needed to become autonomous and self-reliant, and set their own agenda and course of action. White abolitionists argued against separate conventions as did other black leaders. Basing his argument on expediency, John Peterson, for example, insisted that since the majority of New York State’s population was white and hostile to black political rights, blacks as a minority and a “distinct people” had no hope of “influencing the said white majority, neither by interest, fear, nor by superior intellectual power.”
I am more interested in parsing the philosophical position taken by black leader, James McCune Smith, who argued against separate conventions; distinguishing people on the basis of skin color, he insisted, was a “virtual acknowledgment that there are rights peculiar to the color of a man’s skin, thus fostering prejudice against complexion.” Directly addressing the issue of the property qualification imposed against black men, Smith then proceeded to argue that it was unconstitutional not because it was based on racial discrimination, but because it violated the principle of no taxation without representation, which had nothing to do with race. This was not a case of racially discriminatory legislation, but of unconstitutional law. In my paper, I would like to deepen our understanding of Colored Convention debates by moving beyond issues of strategy to consideration of philosophical positions advanced by men like James McCune Smith.